Midtown Raleigh News

Report links high test scores with Wake’s diversity policy

A national report shows that Wake County’s low-income students are less likely to be stuck in a lower-performing school than their peers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The report found also that schools attended by low-income and middle/high-income students in the Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area exceeded test score expectations to an extent greater than in any of the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

The report being released Thursday by the Washington-based Brookings Institution doesn’t identify why the results are much better than expected but says “one possible explanation is that Wake County has a history of aggressive districtwide socioeconomic integration policies.”

The timing of the report likely will add more fuel to the emotional debate about student assignment in the state’s largest school district. Wake is in the midst of implementing a new choice-based plan that replaces the previous method of trying to balance family income levels at schools.

“For many years, Wake County has been a national model for trying to address the gap between rich and poor and black and white,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a researcher with the progressive Century Foundation and an advocate of socioeconomic diversity efforts. “This report finds support for that notion.”

Wake County school board member John Tedesco, an outspoken critic of the former diversity policy, cautioned against reading too much into the report’s findings. He said the Raleigh-Cary metro area’s academic performance may be more reflective of its affluence compared to many of the metropolitan areas in the report.

“You can’t compare a suburban affluent area like Wake with an urban high-poverty area,” he said.

Until 2010, Wake’s policy was to try to limit schools from having more than 40 percent of their students receiving federally subsidized lunches, which is a measure of income levels. Wake’s approach earned it nationwide recognition for being the largest school district in the nation that bused students for diversity. A new Republican majority on the school board eliminated the diversity policy, blaming it for increasing situations where students didn’t go to schools near where they live or were reassigned repeatedly to other schools.

Zoning considerations

Supporters of the new assignment plan have said its implementation has been successful in allowing parents to pick the schools they want their children to attend. But critics have advocated returning to a variation of the old model, which would more aggressively promote economic diversity in all schools.

Now comes this new Brookings report, which found that municipal zoning laws are restricting affordable housing across the country and making it harder for low-income students to get into high-quality schools. But the report found the Raleigh-Cary metro area to be an outlier.

The Raleigh-Cary metro area was ranked No. 43 in terms of having the most restrictive zoning laws. Jonathan Rothwell, the report’s author, said the most restrictive zoning laws tended to be found in the Northeast, where regulation such as requiring large lot sizes makes it harder to find affordable housing.

Rothwell said Raleigh’s zoning ranking typically would mean that the area would be in the middle of the pack when it comes to economic segregation and gaps in housing costs and test scores. But the report found that Raleigh had one of the lowest levels of economic segregation and one of the smaller gaps in housing costs between areas near high-scoring and low-scoring schools.

The report also singles out Raleigh’s smaller-than-expected gap in test scores.

“This sort of progressive integration policies Wake County has been using can help explain the gap,” Rothwell said in an interview.

But Tedesco said people should also look at individual group-level data that show that Wake’s low-income and minority students were performing below the state average.

Moving forward, members of the school board’s new Democratic majority have talked about revisiting the assignment policy and potentially adding a diversity component. Tedesco, a Republican, cautioned against making changes until they’d had more time to see how the new plan works out.